CHARLOTTE — Many times throughout his young career, Justin Thomas has been his own worst enemy.
Much like his high-octane swing that makes him pound-for-pound the longest player in professional golf — he tips the scales at about 150 — Thomas doesn’t hold much back on the inside, either. He’s a demonstrative player with a big personality who rides the highs and lows with equal intensity, often to his own detriment as he quickly can’t shake bad moments.
But with each passing tournament, Thomas, 24, has tried to tone himself down and make patience the 15th club in his bag. There was no bigger challenge on this front than in Sunday’s volatile final round of the 99th PGA Championship.
On an outrageous day at the final major of the season, when five players grabbed a share of the lead and birdies and bogeys aplenty produced roars and moans whistling through the trees framing Quail Hollow, Thomas kept his wits and nerve about him and his opponents at bay to win the Wanamaker Trophy.
With a 3-under-par 68, Thomas broke from the pack to win his first major championship. With rounds of 73-66-69-68, he finished at 8 under and two shots clear of Francesco Molinari (67), Patrick Reed (67) and Louis Oosthuizen (70). Another shot back was Hideki Matsuyama (72) and Rickie Fowler (67).
Iowa native Zach Johnson finished in a tie for 48th at 5-over 289. Johnson had a 3-over 74 on Sunday, that included a bogey on the par-4 1st, a string of 16 consecutive pars and double bogey on the par-4 18th. The two-time major victor has yet to win the PGA Championship.
Kevin Kisner, who held the 54-hole lead, shot 74 and fell into a tie for seventh with Graham DeLaet (69).
“I felt I was ready to win a major championship,” said Thomas, who will move to No. 6 in the world.
“I just didn’t want to force things. I felt great all week.”
Jordan Spieth’s quest to become the youngest player to win the career Grand Slam never really got started. With rounds of 72-73-71-70 he finished 2 over.
“It was nothing other than just execution on the greens,” Spieth said. “My striking was pretty good. I’ve been driving the ball really well the last two weeks. So it’s just a matter of making putts.”
Thomas made a lot of putts.
Some of his best work came on the Green Mile, the 1,240-yard stretch of conflict on the last three holes of the course.
First Thomas saved par with a solid 8-foot putt on the 519-yard, par-4 16th, and then gave himself a huge cushion with a birdie on the 221-yard, par-3 17th, where he rifled a 7-iron to 15 feet and buried the putt. Aware of his three-shot lead on the 500-yard, par-4 final hole, Thomas played it safe after driving into a fairway bunker and the closing bogey proved inconsequential.
Those weren’t his only big moments. With his pace and demeanor in check from the first tee, Thomas recovered from a bogey on the first, where he made a huge 20-footer to keep from making a double-bogey, with a birdie on the second. He made a bomb for birdie on the ninth, then another on the 10th when the ball hung on the lip of the cup for 10 seconds before falling into the hole. He provided another heroic moment with a chip-in for birdie on the 13th, which gave him a two-shot lead.
Waiting for Thomas off the 18th green were his parents, Mike and Jani, and a bunch of 20-somethings who are keeping the youth movement in professional golf alive and well — Spieth, Fowler and Bud Cauley.
Thomas is a third generation PGA professional and joined seven others who won the PGA whose fathers were PGA professionals. Thomas’ father also is his coach. His grandfather, Paul, also was a PGA professional.
Mike and Jani Thomas walked every step of the way with their son this week, much like they do at most every tournament he plays. Thomas learned the game from his dad, the head professional at Harmony Landing Country Club outside of Louisville.
“I mean, it’s the PGA Championship. I’m a PGA member, my Dad’s a PGA member, and it’s just a special moment,” Mike Thomas said after the round. “I told him before the round, ‘You know, you’re second in the field in birdies, if you make a bogey you don’t need to panic. Just be smart out there, don’t do something stupid.’ Once he birdied 17, I said to myself on the tee shot on 18, ‘Man, just get this thing on land somewhere. It can be in the beer stand, it doesn’t matter where it is, just get it on land and make a five.’ …
“It’s really special, it’s really cool. To win is so hard, and having my dad being a PGA member and still alive, I’m sure my phone is going to be blowing up when I turn it back on.”
The win was Thomas’ fourth of the season and his first victory on the U.S. mainland among his five career wins. After winning in Malaysia at the CIMB Classic for the second consecutive time last fall, he pulled off the Hawaii double, winning the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open, where he shot a first-round 59 and won by seven shots.
He contended here and there but not much was happening for him after leaving the Aloha State. That is, until the U.S. Open, where he shot a 9-under-par 63 in the third round, the lowest round in major championship history in relation to par, and trailed by one with 18 to play. But an errant tee shot on the first knocked him for a loop and he shot 75 to finish in a tie for ninth.
But that’s where Thomas said he learned something about himself, something about the patience needed to finish off things on the biggest stages in golf.
“Just the experience of going through it, any time you can be in the final group is great. But it just was really my comfortability of where my game was and how I felt, and the prep that I put into this week,” Thomas said. “I felt like I was ready. It just was about going out and doing it.”